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Sleep paralysis, precarity, and identity


The New Inquiry has an interesting essay by Lana Polansky on the parallels between the frightening experience of sleep paralysis (a condition in which the mind wakes up but the body does not) and the fragmentary sense of self produced by precarious working conditions. Check out an excerpt below and the full piece here.

You know that feeling where you’re not sure if you dreamed something or if it really happened? This happens to me a lot, but sleep paralysis in particular makes me doubt the reality of my most intimate sanctuary. If only I could reach out and touch something solid, but I can’t. Sleep paralysis is boring in that way, and very quiet. It’s what I imagine it feels like to be an AI trapped inside a piece of hardware, with nowhere to wander. It’s alienating; everything is just images. Abstract, lacking dimension. Even though I know what to expect at this point, every time it happens I get a little bit more afraid that, eventually, I’ll become stuck that way.

There’s no known cause for sleep paralysis, but some evidence suggests that it can be triggered by stress and a general lack of sleep. Good thing then that each episode triggers a little insomnia-inducing fear, sometimes for weeks, that it’ll happen again. Good thing also that I chose a line of work reputed for its extreme instability in an age where the arts go underfunded, the journalism industry flounders to find a reliable profit model, and the class of “content creators” find their labor routinely devalued. I don’t know if my circadian rhythm can keep a beat without the help of caffeine and melatonin pills. As I write this, it’s almost 5 a.m.

Much of the stress comes from weeks of burnout and writer’s block followed by successive all-nighters. It comes from not being able to turn on or off the wheels of my brain when I need to, and from trying to reconcile that with the material need to do work and get paid. There’s the anxiety of debt, the anxiety of making sure I’m getting enough out of crowdsourcing and contracts, the anxiety of working in a niche like games (I moonlight as an independent game developer), where the culture is hyper-solidified and all the same neoliberal problems that workers face today are hyper-accelerated. I find myself starting and stopping, slipping in and out of creative spells and moments of absolute defeatism and dejection. I find myself vacillating between impostor syndrome and feeling underappreciated. I find myself wondering where anyone concerned with the arts as a public good fits in to such a commercialized environment. I find myself lethargic, nearly atonic, fighting against my own body to continue on with work that I’m hoping, at some point, will lead to an awakening of some kind.

Image via The New Inquiry.